Department of Justice Spying on AP Reporters’ Telephone Contacts Threatens Democracy

The Associated Press has been the victim of massive secret surveillance of its reporters’ telephone traffic (not the substance but to whom they were talking) on the part of the Department of Justice.

AP received a leak last year about a plot by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen against the United States, but apparently the whole thing was a CIA sting and the AP report, based on the leaker’s partial information, disrupted the operation. The Obama administration has shown a brutality toward government whistleblowers and leakers unparalleled in any other modern administration.

The AP reporters and those of us in the news business are furious because we all depend on people thinking they can talk to us in confidence. If they think we’re all under surveillance, they won’t be willing to divulge the real news. Sometimes government wants to keep things secret that harm the public, and it is important that people of conscience be allowed to push back. Otherwise, you get corruption and dictatorship.

That is, the obsession with government secrecy in the National Security State is a grave threat to newsgathering and hence democracy itself. Government isn’t the aim of democracy, it is the tool, and if the tool is so poorly designed as to injure the person wielding it, it should be discarded.

Aljazeera English reports:

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23 Responses

    • Your comment is meaningless.

      There is going to be a government no matter who wins the election, and as Max Weber pointed out, there is an iron law of bureaucracy.

      If you think government is going to disappear, you are naive.

      If you think the hard line attitude in this administration toward whistleblowers means that everything the administration does is bad, they you lack a sense of proportion.

      Your comment just has no semantic content of any significance.

      • What part of this story is supposed to involve a whistle blower?

        This is an investigation of who leaked information intended to demonstrate what an awesome job the government was doing in disrupting a terrorist plot.

        You seem to be using Karl Rove’s definition of ‘whistle blower’ from the Valerie Plame investigation: someone who leaks information for the purpose of promoting the government’s political standing.

  1. Mr. Cole: I’m perplexed as to why the media can commit an alleged crime (releasing confidential information) without their having to face the consequences of such action. According to

    “Why that drew the attention of the Justice Department, however, is that the CIA was the one who foiled the plot, which the AP report made clear:
    The FBI is examining the latest bomb to see whether it could have passed through airport security and brought down an airplane, officials said. They said the device did not contain metal, meaning it probably could have passed through an airport metal detector. But it was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.
    The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought a plane ticket when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said. It’s not immediately clear what happened to the alleged bomber.

    AP learned of the plot a week before publishing, but “agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately” due to national security concerns. But, by reporting the CIA’s involvement in foiling the plot, they put AQAP on notice that the CIA had a window into their activities. The AP’s reporting also led to other stories involving an operative in place within AQAP, and details of the operations he was involved in. That operative, it was feared, would be exposed and targeted by AQAP as retribution for siding with the United States.”

    This is absolute fair game in my mind. They fully endangered the life of American citizens. I mean, is this not why Scooter Libby was prosecuted?

    Thank You!

    • Putting the entirety of AP under telephone surveillance secretly for one leak seems a little disproportionate, no?

      • Perhaps you’re right in that regard. I’m ignorany though as to what other means they could have used in order that they isolate the alleged perpetrator(s) of this alleged crime. I am 100% full bore against the Patriot Act type spying. Do you think this particular act fall into that category

      • Claiming the entirety of the AP was put under telephone surveillance secretly seems disproportionate to me, and not even remotely in line with the available facts.

        I do think there are legitimate questions raised here, but can we please make at least a minimal effort to be truthful and accurate, instead of trying to be the loudest shrieker in the room?

    • “This is absolute fair game in my mind. They fully endangered the life of American citizens.”

      Well that’s what Holder would like us to believe. But then we have an interview with Janet Napolitano saying:

      The “device was always under control” and “no one in the United States was ever at risk because we did have control”

      link to

      I find it hard to reconcile the two.

      • Well that’s what Holder would like us to believe. But then we have an interview with Janet Napolitano

        We’re here trying to do guesswork to weigh the competing interests and judge the appropriateness of the subpoena’s breadth, based on contradictory media reports about a subject that involves information that is mostly secret.

        This is another reason why a court, reviewing a warrant application, would have been the appropriate venue to authorize this request, or a modified version thereof.

    • Efrem: still carrying a torch for Scooter Libby?

      As to this horrific amazing revelation that the CIA has “a window into AQAP,” the AP story broke when, in May 2012? Here it is, in FOX News: link to And how stupid do you think those incredibly sneaky al Quaedans are, those people who supposedly are an infinite threat to what Holder calls a “the American people.” So stupid that they won’t know that the CIA and other sneaky petes are onto them? Can one wonder whether, as reported in some places, the “bomber” was one of those saps that the FBI and such-like folks manage to snooker into various plots…

      Does your happy willingness to turn the state security apparatus looser than it already is extend to Ailes’ Black Hole? And if you are implying that ThinkProgress thinks that AP did something beyond the pale, maybe anyone who wants to make an informed judgment ought to read the entry there, which you did not link in your comment: link to

      I wonder if the CIA, that’s not “legally” supposed to be doing domestic espionage, is working with the other parts of the eExecutive to maybe go after the dozens of “outlets” that like FOX News, that protector of the American Way in All Things, saw fit to publish and announce to the whole Scooter-Libby-Friendly world?

    • The media didn’t commit an alleged crime, and isn’t facing consequences.

      This isn’t an investigation of AP running the story; this is an investigation of who leaked the information to the AP long before the story ran. The AP sat on the information for quite some time, at the request of the government, specifically in order to avoid screwing up the operation.

      The problem here is about this braggart who went to the AP and blabbed about this awesome operation they were running. The AP’s records were looked at in an attempt to find him, not to nail them.

      • “The AP’s records were looked at in an attempt to find him, not to nail them.”

        The AP’s right to privacy was still invaded.

        There is also the question if the journalistic shield law applicable in that jurisdiction would also protect the AP’s source(s) in this situation.

        If the feds could sift through a journalist’s telephone records to determine who was communicating with the press, it would unduly chill the First Amendment freedom of the press.

        • Mark,

          The AP’s right to privacy was still invaded.

          I see it more as a First Amendment issue than a Fourth, but yes, the government stepped on their toes.

          My point was that it makes no sense to defend this in terms of the AP having it coming, because they aren’t the ones targeted, and getting them isn’t what this investigation was about.

      • Seems to me that given the breadth of what it appears DOJ is going after, this very much is an investigation of an “alleged crime.” That, in addition to the whistling up the existence of “the operation,” being the release into the public brain of information about a bomb plot that was ostensibly part of one of the many CIA “ops” that so many times before (when the rest of us hear of them at all, via “whistleblowing” as most of us understand the term) have been shown to be STUPID and ill-advised and symptomatic of a really cancerous set of institutional behaviors.

        Seems ingenuous, if not disingenuous, to try to paint this “investigation,” this “plumber” activity, as consequence-free for the media. From what I read, it’s making a lot of already pretty cowardly people even more nervous about doing the old-fashioned version of their jobs.

        Interesting that one claiming devotion to sticking to the “known facts” states as fact that this is just “about” “this braggart” who “went to the AP and blabbed about this awesome operation.” Cites? And not “about” some other thing, like deterring any spasms of conscience, or maybe some skulldugger subterfuge, like killing several birds with one stone: Shame and scare “the media” back into bland cheerleader mode or into silence, indicate to “AQAP” whatever that is that we’re on to them, warn other potential suicide bombers that their “friends” may just be CIA dudes setting them up, let “the American people” feel good that the CIA is on the case, I bet there’s a memo stamped “TOP SECRET” that lists these and many more “features and benefits…”

        • Only in your mind, JT, could publicizing the presence of an infiltrator into an al Qaeda group and the disruption of their plot qualify as shining a light on wrongdoing.

          What, exactly, am I supposed to cite as evidence to demonstrate that bragging about an operation success is not whistle-blowing?

  2. It seems that Aljazeera and throw-away cell phones might become critical to American democracy. Where are the traditional forth estate guardians of freedom?

  3. if he was a Nader or Green voter…or Constitution on the right for example, Brian’s comment makes sense.

    Duopoly corruption is beyond reform.

  4. If whistleblowers are harshly dealt with, initially people cower, afraid. The people who retaliate feel they are protected (mis)using the system. That’s the mentality behind this unfortunately.

    But with this continuation and widening of the net, cannot go on endlessly. It results in people feeling they can speak freely, they’ve past that red line, survived the loss and learned the sun will still rise. Mahmood Darwish said hope is an incurable malady. It’s all you need. Then you will know justice, along with fixing the record, is important. People give their lives for our Constitutional rights, why not give our jobs? When you’ve lost so much, speaking out is all that is left. Even David persevered against Goliath

    • This is an investigation into who leaked information designed to make the government look like an awesome disruptor of terrorist attacks, and toot either his own horn, that of his agency, or that of the administration.

      What part of that qualifies as whistle-blowing?

      Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, and their accomplices claimed that blowing Valerie Plame’s cover, in order to discredit her husband and protect the White House’s political agenda, as whistle-blowing, too.

      Just because you leak secrets doesn’t make you a whistle-blower. Whistle-blowing is the act of publicizing wrongdoing, not bragging about your team.

  5. Question #1 is who in the Administration is so afraid of what might be uncovered, they willing attack the Constitution.

    Question #2 is how long before the power of Democracy, first recognized by our Founding Fathers, and thereafter by educated, intelligent and brave Americans, including to his eternal credit JC, will expose this tyrant and those who support him or her.

    The movie will not end until the good guys/girls win.

    Believe it.

  6. The AP is only the tip of the iceberg. We know that back in the first GWBush term the Feds had installed their own router in the SF offices of ATT so that they could monitor phone calls, I must assume all the phone calls that went through that office. We’ve also known that the NSA is capturing all electronic communications and storing it for later use, if necessary.

    I’ve been answering my phone with “The NSA is still listening” for years now and added “so is Rupert Murdoch but maybe not for long” when the stories about NewsCorpse’s hacking of phones in UK became pubic, what?, two years ago now.

    If you think your email and phone conversations are secure from government or corporate surveillance, you are fooling yourself.

  7. When I heard this I was kind of curious if this type of government spying is irregular over the course of the last century?

    Also, it will be interesting to see how much attention this scandal and the Tea Party IRS scandal get from Republicans and Democrats. It was also interesting to see former John Yoo, former Bush legal counsels comments: “I deplore the Obama administration’s assault on freedom of the press. But I have no sympathy for the AP or the mainstream media, because this is how you get treated when you are in a politician’s pocket. If the AP’s editors and reporters and their colleagues at other newspapers had been more adversarial toward this President, as they were with President Bush, they would [have] been treated with far more respect.” No mention of the legality, but rather get used to it, your not doing what the executive office wants.

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